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Karimun, Batam and Bintan are the main islands in the Riau Archipelago, located just kilometres from Singapore and Malaysia. The northern part of Bintan and some parts of Batam attract middle-class Singaporeans and Europeans in search of sun, sand and pampering. But many Singaporean tourists who come to the islands are working-class men in search of sex. Bargain-basement prices in the islands allow these men to escape from the grinding reality of life for the Singaporean working poor.
Indonesian sex workers charge about the same for a whole night as Singaporean sex workers charge for an hour. Other luxuries, like seafood and entertainment, are much more affordable too. But others come in search not just of sexual gratification, but in search of intimacy and a sense of power.
The sex industry in the islands relies heavily on its Singaporean clients. Over a million Singaporeans visited the Riau Islands in , many of them looking for sex. Newspapers report that there are around 20, sex workers in Batam alone, which is probably a gross exaggeration. But there are several thousand.
In one NGO in Batam had over sex workers on its books. In the absence of national criminal laws, provincial and sub-district governments have introduced a range of regulations to monitor and restrict the sale of sexual services.
Most local authorities tolerate semi-legal brothel complexes lokalisasi modelled on centres established by the Dutch colonial government. But the local authorities refuse to formalise the industry, preferring instead to profit from its illegal status. Every month prostitution bosses have to pay off local government officials, the police, the navy, and the army with money and women if they want to stay in business. According to some reports, the navy is also directly involved in running a number of the brothels.